• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

END THE ENABLING

To me, the most deeply disturbing part of the latest Tony Stewart imbroglio is just that -- it's the latest public relations mess self-created by talented-but-temperamental Stewart. A Constitutionally-protected opinion can be offered that all of this has been enabled by the management of his race team, sponsors, and even a few too-deferential announcers.

The above is no overstatement. Proven by the plain FACT that it's just the most recent example of a pattern of behavior that has sadly been allowed to play-out over several years and multiple incidents. Many of which, I will add, could and should have been anticipated and thus avoided.

To recap: After blaming the media in a post-Texas interview for getting booed by spectators, Stewart finished second a week later at Phoenix. He skipped NASCAR-required interviews with national broadcasters on pit road and in the media center. Tuesday, on his satellite radio show, Stewart called into question the integrity of the series of which he's twice been champion. That led to a countrywide media firestorm and, then, a 6 a.m. meeting with NASCAR officials in the Talladega garage area. After which, Tony was the star attraction at a news conference in which he apologized and backtracked from his earlier comments, moonwalking like nobody since Michael Jackson.

Let me repeat what I've written and said many times: I consider Stewart to be a great racer -- quite possibly the greatest of his generation. That does not justify his poor conduct.

There are several specific points that need to be made:

1. Stewart said on his radio show that he had no contractual obligation to do post-race interviews. Wrong. The requirement for top-five finishers to accommodate national TV and radio, and top-three drivers plus the highest-placed rookie to go to the media center, is printed on every NASCAR race entry form. It also is announced at the drivers' meeting. While it would be nice to think Stewart should know what he HAD to do, based on my own experience working with high profile, intensely competitive, strong personality drivers, I'm absolutely willing to give Tony the benefit of that doubt. But the issue BEGS the question: Why didn't Stewart's "PR" man know? Isn't a solid knowledge of MANDATORY media appearances a BASIC part of the job? Or, if he did know, why didn't he make certain Tony was instructed to do what he must?

2. I listened in to Stewart's 'Dega press confab. Stewart said he "tried to get out of doing the radio show" Tuesday because of what Tony described as a "100.5 degree fever." However, Stewart did the show in that condition because his "PR" rep "felt like it was very important that I do go on there and at least talk about why we didn't come on Saturday." Which BEGS yet another question: Why would someone charged with the responsibility to look out for Stewart's public image encourage Tony, well-known as a hot head, to go on-air in an ill condition which common sense said would make it even more likely the driver would verbally get himself in trouble? To call that "bad advice" would be akin to describing Chernobyl as a "minor incident." Again, common sense obviously suggested a different course of action -- such as having Stewart stay in bed, away from a microphone! Even Tony admitted what he said on radio "did a lot of damage."

3. Among those damaged by even the broad hint that NASCAR races aren't on the up-and-up are EVERYONE involved in the series. That include's Stewart's own crew members, who earn their paychecks this way, and Stewart's own sponsors. And, yes, journalists who make a living covering NASCAR. In a few minutes, Stewart supplied ammo to every conspiracy theorist and all those big-city columnists who continue to reject Nextel Cup as a big-time sport worthy of their precious time and attention.

All of the above is troubling, but here's the worst part: Several of those involved said they hoped what happened last Friday "would put the matter behind us." That not only is breathtakingly naive thinking, it is dangerous. I honestly don't know how it could be more obvious this is a continuing pattern of behavior and that, ultimately, it is likely to end very, very badly.

Don Imus clearly thought he was bulletproof, able to say and do anything he liked without consequence, protected by the commercial results of his talent and a supportive boss. Imus essentially said just that, numerous times, on his show. That arrogance and ego failed to take a course correction once new, less sympathetic, management arrived at CBS Radio. I've come to the regretable conclusion that Tony Stewart shares the flawed Imus view of the world -- that he can say and do whatever he pleases -- because he wins races and championships. I would respectfully remind Stewart of what happened to Imus, an example reinforced by the fact that Home Depot's Board of Directors showed its CEO the door earlier this year, a man overly forgiving of Stewart's previous misdeeds. Like Imus, Stewart has lost his corporate protector. Does Tony even understand this? Has ANYONE thought of it and tried to explain this new reality to the driver? I know of no evidence to suggest so.

Now, I see where Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs has been quoted as saying Stewart must "conduct himself in the right way" and that "I think, for us, we're going to have a long conversation with him. We've already had some."

Sorry, we've heard that before. Let me remind the Gibbs' family management team that dealing with human relationships is a results-based activity, just like racing and football. Talk, fines and point penalties have not worked. To put it another way Gibbs might understand, Stewart clearly has been surrounded by the wrong "coaches," and at least one is obviously in over-his-head. Stewart's stock-car future now depends on Gibbs (with the full support of the brand or sponsorship managers at Home Depot, Old Spice and Coca-Cola, among others) completely changing Tony's support team. Experienced professionals -- independent of Stewart's personal business ventures -- with the proven ability to "sell" an athlete into the "program" and unafraid to speak truth-to-power must be brought in ASAP.

Otherwise, the inevitable final outcome will be on them. One other point for consideration by father and son Gibbs: What do you think Roger Penske would do?
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I'll bet eight dozen No. 8 caps that most of the thugs who threw cans at Jeff Gordon after his victory at Talladega are the kind who complain NASCAR doesn't receive enough positive media coverage. Their disgraceful actions, of course, only served to reinforce the stereotyped opinion at least half of the national newsies already had about stock car "fans."
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Recently, a young PR director asked me for some counsel, when put into a situation by the boss that could have resulted in being dishonest with the media. My reaction was this person should attempt to "manage" things in such a way as to avoid being untruthful with the media. My words were something like, "ultimately, your most valuable professional quality is your credibility."

So, I found it interesting when former CIA (CYA?) Director George Tenet defended himself last Sunday night on CBS' 60 Minutes thusly (and the validity of the statement doesn't depend on what you think of Tenet): "At the end of the day, the only thing you have . . . is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor and when you don't have that anymore, well, there you go."
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You read it here first:

* One of NASCAR's
most famous sponsors, which enjoyed a long run with one of its most legendary teams, will return in 2008 in at least an associate-level role.

* We know Pirelli will replace Hoosier as the spec tire for the Rolex Sports Car Series next season. What you probably don't know is that, while a final decision is pending, there is about a 50-50 chance that the exclusive tire supplier for another U.S. circuit will withdraw at the end of this year. With no other "major" manufacturer interested, the series may well be forced to turn to a "second tier" company.
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John Menard has long been a powerful yet largely unknown presence in major American motorsports. Milwaukee Magazine lifted the veil in this lengthy profile, which includes many references to Menard's auto racing ventures:

http://http://www.milwaukeemagazine.com/currentIssue/full_feature_story.asp?NewMessageID=13642
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It's May, so let's have some "fun." Over the next four weeks, I'll recount some positive and negative experiences I've had at the Indianapolis 500. I attended my first Indy in 1969:

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My first formal interview with A.J. Foyt for the Philadelphia Daily News was as part of a small cluster of reporters invited into Foyt's garage a few days before the 1975 Indy 500. When another writer asked Foyt about cheating allegations, A.J. ordered us to "get the hell out." A few minutes later, I told this tale-of-woe to Speedway President Tony Hulman, with whom I had sat at a sponsor dinner before the Daytona 500. Mr. Hulman said to "come along" with him and we walked back to Foyt's garage. I waited outside as Tony went in and interceded with Foyt. I got waved back in and A.J. agreed to answer three questions.

- In 2005, I walked with driver Richie Hearn and his wife, Brenda, from Gasoline Alley out to the grid. As we got to pit road, one of the Speedway's infamous "Yellow Shirt" guards got right in our path and told Brenda she was not allowed out there. No matter that she was in compliance with race-day dress requirements, had a race-day "hot" pit credential, or that as we stopped to engage in this bit of egomania several other drivers walked past us with wife/girlfriend dressed/credentialed in exactly the same manner. Seconds after talking our way past this roadblock, yet another "guard" hassled Brenda in a similar way, without proper explanation. By this point, Richie was getting extremely agitated -- just what he didn't need on his most important day of the year. I wrote down details of this nonsense in my notebook, and vowed that if the worst happened in the race, I'd tell every last reporter I could find what occurred in the minutes before the green flag. Hearn, in fact, did receive a leg injury in a multi-car accident.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]